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At economic summit, keynote speaker stresses importance of embracing humanity of modern workers

National Geographic photographer recounts near-death experience in Pakistan
Acclaimed National Geographic photographer Cory Richards addressed an audience of business leaders Tuesday as a keynote speaker for the 2021 La Plata County Economic Alliance Summit. Richards relays his near-death experience in Pakistan as projectors display the photograph he took of himself immediately after climbing out from an icy crevice he fell into after surviving an avalanche. (Christian Burney/The Durango Herald)

The first La Plata County Economic Alliance Summit since 2019 took place Tuesday at the Sky Ute Casino and Resort and started off with a harrowing story from acclaimed National Geographic adventure photographer and keynote speaker Cory Richards, who shared his personal experience with internal trauma in a presentation titled #LifeUnfiltered.

Richards uses his photography as a medium to explore the internal turmoil that people grapple with. At the Alliance Summit, he used his photography and life experiences to broach the primary theme of this year’s event, “rehumanizing work.”

Everyone has experienced internal trauma to one extent or another, whether under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic or in other avenues of life, Richards said. He personally dealt with alcoholism, addiction, divorce, infidelity and other deeply personal traumas, and reminded the audience that their colleagues and employees are dealing with the same things.

Richards survived an avalanche when returning from the summit of Gasherbrum II, Pakistan, in 2011. (Richards was the first American to reach the peak of an 8,000-meter-plus mountain in Pakistan.)

After he and his two climbing partners – who he described as life-bonded now – dug out of the snow, he searched for a safer way down the mountain and fell into an icy crevasse. He described how he felt trauma surging through him.

When he revisited Mount Everest in 2016, Richards said he thought he was climbing the tallest mountain on Earth, without supplemental oxygen, in order to accomplish something great. But when he summited the 29,032-foot peak, he had an epiphany: He wasn’t climbing toward something but was running away from himself.

"What’s so fascinating to me about this story is that when you get to the top of a place, it’s supposed to be this incredible, cathartic moment,” Richards said. “... Ultimately, what I had realized is that the summit of Everest was ... my rock bottom. I had literally done everything in the world that I could. I climbed quite literally to the highest place on the planet without oxygen to get away from myself. Because I hated myself so completely.”

Richards talked about his adventures in Africa, Antarctica and the Himalayas in Nepal and Pakistan, where he used his photography to recount stories about geopolitics, society and conflict. He tied those journeys to personal lessons he learned. Rarely does one find true “resolution,” he said. He described resolution as a fancy word for acceptance.

“I learned about the human cost about everything that we do,” Richards said. “Human conflict is one of the most damaging things that we as the human family partake in. It’s not about resources, it’s about humans. Everything is about humans. ... In order to understand our own success and our failures, we must first be vulnerable and unflinching in the execution and examination thereof. ... I mean that personally and professionally.”

On the surface, Richards’ photography appears to be about rock climbing, exploration and adventure. But bubbling beneath the surface of the images, like the personal turmoil that has rummaged about in his mind, his photography is about people. And like Richards’ photography, work is also about people, and people are about the personal, he said.

“’Rehumanizing’ means exactly that: Seeing the human behind work,” Richards said. “When we are unwell, when we are suffering through these things, our ability to create is dramatically reduced. Our ability to commit, connect and contribute almost disappears.”

Richards said that humans can achieve the highest levels of success, but when they are broken inside, it will bring them to their knees.

“In order to understand our own success and our failures, we must first be vulnerable and unflinching in the execution and examination thereof,” photographer and speaker Cory Richards said Tuesday at the 2021 La Plata County Economic Alliance Summit. “... I mean that personally and professionally.”

“Rehumanizing work means making space for the people that create our workforces, that understand they are fighting serious issues at times,” he said. “... It might be somebody who suffers from depression, it might be your own suffering with that, it could be alcoholism, addiction, it could be divorce. It could be infidelity. We’re all (expletive) human. We’re all going through it at the same time, and yet we throw these shields up and we block it and we expect that people show up for work and they button up and they do their job.

“But here’s the thing: The cost of mental illness or mental unwellness at work is $44 billion annually, just in America. Forty-four billion dollars because people are unwell at work because they’re hiding these things,” Richards said. “We have lost our community over the last year. We have lost our work community, we’ve lost our ability to come together, to co-create, because we’ve been locked at home in front of Zoom.”

After Richards’ opening keynote presentation, attendees went to numerous breakout presentations, including cybersecurity, capital returns and debt; affordable health care for business and workplace diversity and inclusion; crafting strategic solutions; stewarding wholeness and sustainability; and powerful storytelling for workplace leaders.

Other speakers included StoneAge CEO Kerry Siggins; La Plata Electric Association CEO Jessica Matlock; Meredith Mapel, president and CEO of Durango Coca-Cola; and Amy Barry, public information officer for the Southern Ute Incident Management Team.

La Plata Economic Alliance Executive Director Michael French said of local businesses and the alliance organization, “We have an opportunity to be transformational, but we have to acknowledge and address the economic variables that have changed or accelerated as a result of the pandemic. Our workforce and workforce housing are foundational and have to be a priority to enable business growth and the preservation of our community’s social fabric.”


The Alliance Summit’s renewed mission this year is to “create a vibrant and resilient economy from the recruitment, retention and growth of a variety of businesses by fostering public and private partnerships and preserving our quality of life.”

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